How much of your time is spent in a meditative state? Twenty minutes a day? Forty? Or much, much more?
To be accurate with the answer, we need to recognise the three most common meditative states.
The best known meditation is when we do nothing else – sitting, standing, lying down, we set out to spend twenty minutes or so just improving our mental state and capability, training ourselves to cope better and be more resourceful mentally. You may know this under many names – Zazen, Vipassana, or the western variation Transcendental Meditation, which was brought to the world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi 50 years ago and has been learned by five million people, including famously the Beatles before creating the Sergeant Pepper album. All these variations are the same thing at their core – choose one thing to put your attention on, and as soon as your mind wanders (as of course it will) gently and non-judgementally bring it back to whatever you have chosen – your breathing, a candle, or perhaps an open awareness of the place you are in. There are hundreds of clinical studies now, reporting the many health and lifestyle benefits of just this type of practice on its own, with no other practices in support.
The second meditative state was taught by Buddha around 450BC, and he referred to it as Sati in his mother tongue, Pali. Today, this translates as ‘awareness’ or ‘mindfulness’, and has only recently become widely recognised in the western world as a beneficial meditative process or state.
Zen Master Osho used to favour the term ‘awareness’, and you will find that word threaded through his many writings and recorded talks (satsangs). This can be thought of as an extension of the first state, because in mindfulness the chosen subject for your attention is the current moment, your life right here, right now, without judgement, just living every moment. As soon as you realise your mind is re-living a past experience or getting caught up in some imagined future, you simply bring your attention back to the present moment, just as in a sitting meditation. The difference is that you may be paying attention to sensations such as taste or aroma, feelings such as stiffness or strength, or activities such as creativity, problem solving, or listening to music, not simply a chosen consistent single thing like breath. Again, clinical studies are frequently published showing benefits for a huge range of things ranging from anxiety, stress and depression to peak performance and emotional intelligence.
The third meditative state is simply called ‘flow’. This state, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and satisfaction from the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one is doing – cares and concerns, memories and future plans, even time itself disappear from consciousness. This state was first named by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during this state of consciousness when they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this “optimal experience” they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
Interestingly for implications for delaying the ageing process, which we know depends to some extent on continually st-mulating the brain to make fresh neural pathways, he also wrote:
“…to remain in flow an individual must increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills and taking on new challenges. Flow encourages people to stretch themselves, to always take on another challenge, to improve their abilities… [it is the process of continually] discovering something new”
(Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentimibalyi, 1988,
So, how much time do you spend absorbed in what you are doing? Stretched maybe, challenged a little, but in that state of pleasure and reward, timelessly creating something, whether at work or play? Add more of that to life alongside your daily meditation practice, and you will reap huge rewards.
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